Do you need a church to be a true follower of Jesus Christ? Can you be more fruitful and effective without the church? In a multi-cultural, pluralistic world, is the church even relevant?
Many people answer these questions with a resounding, “NO!” They look at churches and see people playing religious games. Rather than living with intentionality, the theme song of many churches is, “We’ve always done it this way!” Consequently, many dismiss the church as out of date, out of touch, ineffective, and irrelevant.
Rather than be confused, we can be confident about God’s plan for the church. The church is central to God’s plan to reach the world with the message of salvation. In Matthew 16:13-20, Jesus explains that when the church is centered on Christ, it is an irresistible influence.
In this passage, Jesus takes his disciples north to a retreat setting. Caesarea Philippi was a multi-cultural, pluralistic region. It had long been the center of Baal worship. Later, shrines were built to honor the Greek god, Pan. More recently to Jesus’ day, Herod the Great built a temple to honor Caesar Augustus.
Jesus seemingly commissions a community survey. He asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” (16:13). A percentage of the people thought he was John the Baptist back from the dead. A handful of people concluded he was Elijah. Still others were convinced he was Jeremiah. A few more had no idea as to his identity, but held the opinion he must be one of the prophets.
Jesus turned the tables on the discussion. He moved from opinion to conviction, from general to specific, from “they” to “you.” He asked his closest followers, “Who do you say I am?” (16:15). Speaking for the rest of the group, Peter stated with conviction, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16).
In a world of many options, there is only one Savior. All roads do not lead to the top. Every belief and religion is not equal. It does matter what one believes. Jesus is the only way to heaven.
Jesus goes on to explain that a church built on himself will be an irresistible influence (16:17-20). Rather than giving clarity, this passage often confuses people. It has been mistaught and misunderstood throughout the centuries.
The phrase, “…you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…” is used by the Roman Catholics to teach that Peter was the first Pope and started the process of apostolic succession. In an effort not to be Catholic, Protestants go to the other extreme and say it refers to Peter’s confession, not the man himself. I think the answer is found in the middle.
The word, “Peter,” is a masculine noun, “petros,” and means “rock.” The word “rock,” is a feminine noun, “petra,” and means, “rocky slope” or “mountain.” I believe that Jesus is commending Peter for his confession. He is the rock. Jesus is referring to the rest of the disciples as the rocky slope or mountain. Peter is one rock among a rock quarry. He would become the first among equals, the leader of the disciples. However, we lose sight of Peter after Acts 12 when Paul gains prominence. In Ephesians 2:19b-20, the apostle Paul said the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, but Christ is the cornerstone.
The next phrase in 16:18 says, “…I will build my church…” We need to remember that the church is built by Christ, not by our efforts. In addition, the church does not belong to me or to you. It belongs to Christ himself.
The last phrase in verse 18, “…and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it…” is often misunderstood. While it is true that the church is under attack by the forces of evil, we don’t get that doctrine from this verse. Instead, this verse tells us that the church will triumph over the enemy.
The gates of a city were not designed to be an offensive weapon. Instead, they were constructed to keep the enemy out and the citizens safely inside. Instead of the gates of hell attacking the church, the church is the one on the attack. Like Aragorn and the armies of Middle Earth storming the gates of Mordor, we are on a rescue mission trying to save people from hell.
Another way to understand this phrase is to understand that Hades is the realm of the dead. When Christ says that the gates of Hades will not overcome the church, he is stating that death will not defeat God’s plan—not the death of Jesus or the death of other Christ followers. The church will be triumphant.
Peter took the keys of the kingdom (19) and opened the door for the gospel to the Jews (Acts 2), the Samaritans (Acts 8), and the Gentiles (Acts 10). Since “binding” and “loosing” (19) always refers to forgiveness (Matthew 18:18; John 20:22-23), Peter and the other disciples could determine what can/cannot be done in the early church; but only what had already been decided in heaven.
Wrapping up this series, we come full circle to the question we started with, “What makes a great church?”
A great church is centered on Jesus. He is the Son of God. We are to be passionate followers of Christ. We are to obey the great commandment to love God with every aspect of our being. The church belongs to Christ, not us.
A great church combines good works and good news. We are to love people. Rather than church being all about us, we are to be externally focused. We are to share the gospel and make disciples. We are to live as salt and light in the world. We are to serve others.
A great church is an irresistible influence. It has a positive impact in the community. As a result, God is glorified (Matthew 5:16) and people come to faith in Christ (Acts 2:47).
A Great Commitment to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission makes a Great Church!
This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, on October 20, 2013. It is the final message in a series on “What makes a great church?” Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.